The biography (Seerah) of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Sunni and Shia sources. Who has the primary sources? Who relies on the other for the Seerah information?
Sunni & Shia Seerah Sources
A brief overview and comparison
One of the grave matters Sunni & Shi’ite theology fundamentally disagree upon is the historical narrative pertaining to the Prophet’s life.
This narrative is mostly the result of divergent primary historical sources.
Some of the most important texts in this context are Seerah/Maghazi works, which focus on the Prophet’s life and can contextualize reports found in other sources while providing the backbone for a historical/theological narrative.
Let’s evaluate both traditions in this light:
Notable Sunni Seerah Sources:
– The Seerah of Ibn Ishaq (d. 151)
– The Maghāzī of Ma’mar b. Rashid (d. 153)
– Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra by Ibn Sa’d (d. 230)
– Tarikh Khalifah b. Khayyāt (d. 240)
– Tarikh Ibn Abi Khaythamah (d. 279)
– Tarikh al-Tabari (d. 310) etc
Similarly, they have preserved data from earlier extant works as well, such as reports from:
– al-Zuhrī (d. 124)
– Musa b. ‘Uqbah (d. 141)
– Ali b. Muhammad al-Mada’ini (d. 225) and others etc.
As evident, “Sunni” literature is capable of reproducing a vast amount of data pertaining to the Prophet’s life, which would allow for a solid backbone for the seerah.
Individual reports from hadith sources would further add in this skeleton’s structure & context.
The question that would then arise is:
What about Shi’i seerah sources?
The reality of the matter is that there is not a single classical Twelver seerah source that can be cited in this context.
Many contemporary Shi’i authors cite:
1. al-Ya’qubī’s Tārīkh (d. 292).
Al-Ya’qubi clearly was a Shi’i-leaning historian; however, he actually is unknown to Twelver scholarship, as he was not mentioned in Twelver biographical sources.
Similarly, al-Ya’qubi rarely, if ever, mentions the source of his information, further rendering the book even more questionable.
It’s also quite a later source when compared to Sunni seerah sources that significantly predated it.
2. Murūj al-Dhahab wa-Ma’adin al-Jawhar by al-Mas’udi (d. 346)
This source embodies an extremely abridged summary of the seerah.
al-Mas’udi was mentioned by Ibn al-Najashi; however, his reliability was not endorsed by any early Shi’i authority.
He seemed to often depend on Sunni sources, as he cited Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Sa’d on some occasions.
What further demonstrates this is the alignment of decent portions of his seerah with the “Sunni seerah.”
He praised Abu Bakr and Umar, but he seemed to subtly criticize Uthman.
Other than that, Twelver scholarship has no classical Seerah works.
Thus, it is evident that not a single reliable Twelver seerah work exists to piece together the Prophet’s biography.
What is the end-result?
The end-result is that the only thorough Twelver seerah works were authored by contemporaries.
A good example is al-Amili’s الصحيح من سيرة النبي الأعظم
An enormous work.
Though one may be impressed with the book’s size, it’s author actually inflated its font size and spacing, which made the book seem much larger than it actually is.Nevertheless, in this book, one can observe a common phenomenon that can be seen in many Twelver seerah books.
The Shi’ite author, in reality, was not able to piece a thorough Prophetic biography without depending on Sunni sources.
Otherwise, he would be left with a very limited & unsubstantiated biography that is of little value.
Sunni sources fill the footnotes throughout the book.
What the author conveniently does is that he depends on Sunni sources for the general structure of his Seerah, & he then proceeds to appropriate aspects of it by citing individual reports from 12er sources.
He cannot reproduce a complete seerah from exclusively Twelver sources. The reason why such large gaps exist in Twelver sources pertaining to the Sirah is because it was mostly neglected among classical 12er scholarship.
Rather, efforts were mostly dedicated to post-Prophetic controversies, such as al-Jamal, Siffin, the deaths of some imams etc. 12er sources focused on a few events from the Prophet’s life, which pertained to Ali b. Abi Talib, ( Ghadeer Khumm etc)
Other than that, they are significantly lacking in this regard, which is why a Shi’i scholarship will forever be dependent on Sunni sources for Seerah/history.